Federal Court in Detroit Hears Arguments Today in ACLU Challenge to PATRIOT Act

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
December 3, 2003 12:00 am

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First Time Justice Department to Defend Controversial Law in Court


DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union will present arguments in federal court today in the first case to review the constitutionality of a controversial section of the PATRIOT Act. The hearing marks the first time the Justice Department has been called upon to defend the law in court.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed on July 30, challenges Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which vastly expands the power of FBI agents to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of innocent people in the United States, including citizens and permanent residents.

“We know from our clients that the FBI is once again targeting ethnic, religious, and political minority communities disproportionately,” said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson, who is arguing the case before Judge Denise Page Hood. “Investing the FBI with unchecked authority to monitor the activities of innocent people is an invitation to abuse, a waste of resources, and is certainly not making any of us any safer.”

The ACLU will argue against the government’s motion to dismiss its lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of six nonprofit organizations that provide a wide range of religious, medical, social and educational services to communities around the country.

In briefs filed earlier this month, the ACLU said that fear of the law has already caused a dramatic decline in memberships and donations at mosques and forced a church-sponsored group that aids refugees to change its record-keeping practices.

This First Amendment “chill” is reminiscent of an earlier era when the government attempted to shut down dissent by investigating groups like the NAACP and the Japanese American Citizens League, the ACLU said. Notably, those groups and other civil rights, immigrant and free speech advocates have filed briefs supporting the ACLU’s challenge to the law.

The NAACP, whose members include people of Arab, Muslim and South Asian backgrounds, noted in its brief that during the 1960’s, its members “feared they would lose their jobs and be attacked physically if their membership in the organization was disclosed.” A government requirement that the organization disclose the names of its members “caused membership in Louisiana to drop from 12,000 to 1,700.”

The threat of similar government actions today has had a similar effect on the Arab and Muslim community and organizations that serve them, the ACLU said in legal papers – all the more so because those actions take place in secret.

“Secrecy is the name of the game here,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Section 215 warrants are obtained in a secret court and that provision of the law makes it a felony for anyone served with a warrant to talk about it. We have no way to verify if the government is telling the truth. This is no way to run a democracy.”

The Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, the lead plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, said in an affidavit that “attendance at prayer services, educational forums and social events has substantially dropped” and donations to the group are almost half of what they were before 2001. The group also said that some members have curtailed their political speech, and one member asked that all records pertaining to himself and his family be deleted from MCA’s database.

Mary Lieberman, executive director of Bridge Refuge and Sponsorship Services, a church-affiliated organization in Tennessee, said she has directed her staff to change the way they keep records in order to minimize the chance that personal information will be disclosed to government investigators on fishing expeditions for information about clients from Iraq and Iran.

Other groups that signed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the ACLU’s challenge include American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Friends Service Committee, Japanese American Citizens League and Episcopal Migration Ministries.

The case is Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor et al. v. John Ashcroft, Civil Action No. 03-72913, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division. In addition to Beeson, attorneys in the case are Jameel Jaffer of the national ACLU and Moss, Michael J. Steinberg and Noel Saleh of the ACLU of Michigan.

For a complete list of the ACLU’s clients and links to legal papers, go to /node/23347

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